Hearts and Minds
Marine Civil Affairs Groups take on a larger
role in Iraq as U.S. forces vie with insurgents for loyalties of the
By SUE A. LACKEY, Associate Editor
FALLUJAH, Iraq — In a drab building surrounded by sandbags in
the heart of Fallujah, a room is filled with Iraqis filing claims for
reparations. Marine Corps interpreters are surrounded by groups of Iraqi
men requesting assistance, and rows of benches are filled with black-robed
women and hushed children.
A 10-year-old girl, missing four fingers and her face disfigured with
burns, waits patiently with her mother, hoping to get advanced medical
care. Next to her, a lovely young mother, her voice devoid of expression,
describes how her 8-month-old baby was killed in the bombing that injured
her daughter and her husband has not been right since the explosions
destroyed their home.
Despite the constant threat of insurgent retaliation against them,
these Iraqi citizens have come to the Civil Military Operations Center
(CMOC) in Fallujah hoping that the 5th Marine Civil Affairs Group (CAG)
will help them rebuild their lives. In the heart of what was once the
most notorious insurgent stronghold in Iraq, CMOC has now become a model
for joint efforts aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the local
population throughout the country. Joining Marine CAGs in the effort
are Army contractors and civil affairs units, Air Force personnel and
Unlike the long-term peacekeeping roles usually associated with the
Army, the role of the CAGs is to provide an immediate base of aid and
relief in order to help stabilize the Marines’ area of operations.
Central to Marine urban combat doctrine is the concept of the “three-block
war:” direct combat in block one, security and stabilization in
block two, and civil affairs and humanitarian aid in block three.
Former Marine Corps Commandant Charles C. Krulak defined the concept,
postulating that in addition to providing aid, the civil affairs groups
would ensure fighting units had their rear flank covered, and the local
population could be converted to supporters and intelligence assets
of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force. That force coordination is vital
in urban insurgencies, where the battlespace is fluid and enemies are
often indistinguishable from noncombatants.
“Detachment 4/4 was right there with them during the takedown
of Fallujah,” said Maj. Jeffrey Lipson of the 4th CAG. “There
was combat two blocks away. Three days into major fighting, our Marines
were setting up civil operations. The integration of force protection
as well as the ability of humanitarian assistance creates a win-win
situation for the Marines. From a military perspective, we have helicopters
and resources a nongovernmental organization might not have.”
But as ground operations in Iraq stretch into a third year, the Marine
Corps has added two provisional CAGs into its normal rotation of four
permanent civil affairs groups.
The CAGs are composed entirely of reservists who are rigorously selected
for civilian expertise outside the normal skillsets of active duty Marines,
such as advanced engineering, linguistic and cultural ability, and legal
and governmental affairs. Far from being “weekend warriors,”
CAG Marines are expected to be trained to Marine rifleman standards,
and to play an integral role in the planning and execution of combat
In a combat zone, even providing basic aid is challenging — and
dangerous. Approximately 10 percent of 4th CAG Marines received the
Purple Heart in the battle for Fallujah, and the 5th CAG has already
lost one officer since it assumed the post in March. In the midst of
combat, Civil Affairs Marines had to assess damage and impose curfews,
as well as provide immediate humanitarian relief before long-term reconstruction
could begin. Joined by Army personnel, the job expanded in ways they
had not foreseen.
“One of the major concerns of the international press was [the
possibility] that we had a major humanitarian crisis brewing, primarily
because the Iraqi Red Crescent Society starting publicizing reports
[about lack of food and medicine] before they had ever entered the city,”
said U.S. Army Maj. James Orbock, 445th Civil Affairs Battalion commander.
“We also anticipated using local contractors for body removal
of civilian casualties, but the [insurgents] started booby-trapping
bodies and the civilians did not want to [do the job]. So we had to
implement a remains removal program. As the animals starting running
out of pet food, they started eating the bodies, and as we started removing
the bodies, they started looking at us as the source of their next meal.
So then we had to start [controlling] the dogs and cats.”
CAGs have cleared rubble, rebuilt schools, paid property claims, helped
restore electricity and water utilities, and distributed school supplies
and soccer balls. And the efforts have paid off.
“The battle for Fallujah [Operation Al Fajr] changed a lot of
things. It really broke the back of the insurgency in Fallujah, and
they never regained the combat potential they had,” Lipson said.
“In August 2004, every time we went out we got attacked, and they
were raining mortars and rockets on the base every day. By the time
we left in March 2005, we were able to go out among the people and rebuild
schools, and the villagers were starting to call us and tell us about
Lt. Col. Bill Brown, then-director of the CMOC, agrees.
“The way to defeat an insurgency is getting the people to believe
in what you’re doing. That’s one of the reasons we’re
here,” he said. “It’s been a part of Marine Corps
planning for a very long time, and we’re getting more and more
important to the Marine Expeditionary Force.
“The people of Fallujah have had enough of the insurgents, and
the people of this city are the ones who are going to defeat them in
the long run. They feel they can trust us now, and they feel safe with
us. Hundreds of people come here every day because they feel safe, and
a lot of that is the work of civil affairs Marines,” he said.
Despite the notable successes in Fallujah, the expansion of CAG duties
has the Marine Corps hierarchy uneasy over assuming a role normally
filled by the Army. The Army engages in full-spectrum civil military
operations that also include pre-conflict operations. Army Civil Affairs
has decades of experience in large post-conflict reconstruction efforts
that require engineering, construction and governance teams.
The Marine Corps, by virtue of its structure as an expeditionary force,
limits its civil affairs to relief efforts that can be conducted during
and immediately after hostilities. As the war in Iraq lengthens, CAGs
find their missions blending into reconstruction efforts that normally
are handled by the much greater resources of the Army.
The Army civil affairs force contains more than 6,000 soldiers, 90
percent of whom are reservists. The Marine Corps has less than 10 percent
of that number, and its forces are entirely reserve. Unlike the Corps,
the Army civil affairs force is attached to U.S. Special Operations
Command, where certain units can provide support to Army Special Forces,
which specialize in long-term missions with indigenous peoples.
The Secretary of Defense has indicated a desire to expand civil affairs
training throughout the Army, and some security and stabilization training
has been incorporated service-wide. The Marine Corps lacks the manpower
to sustain such a broad role.
Although the Marines’ Small Wars Manual, compiled in 1940, is
in part based on similar missions during the Philippine insurgency a
century ago, the Corps remains leery of peacekeeping, with the memory
of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing ever-present.
“There is a gap between what the traditional military does and
what is called ‘nation building.’ The reason the Corps is
being called on to do this is because there aren’t any civilian
entities that are currently capable,” said Maj. Jason Johnston,
spokesman for the commandant’s office. “It’s really
a testament to the training and education that the Marine Corps gives
its people that they are able to fill that function, but it’s
a leap to say we should not be involved in civil military operations.
“The political-military infrastructure needs to take a look at
how we transition from traditional warfare to fourth phase nation building,
and who is best able to do it. The State Department is currently not
in a position to do it, so the military is placed in that position,”
Until Iraq is secure enough for civilian efforts, Marine CAGs struggle
to build some sort of governance and rule of law in Fallujah.
“It’s a matter of sustainability,” said Capt. Julianne
Sohn of the 5th CAG. “In an expeditionary role you have that one
snapshot in time where you have immediate impact [on peace and reconstruction].
But five years down the line, it’s the Iraqis who have to be able
to maintain that.”
The Marine Corps is currently studying its civil affairs capabilities,
and no decision has been made as to whether the Corps will retain its
expanded capabilities only for the present conflict, or incorporate
them into the force.